With music by Bizet and lyrics by Hammerstein, a young soldier falls in love with a woman who gets him into trouble and then leaves him for a boxing champion.
Cindy Lou (Olga James) cannot get into a military base without an ID card, but she talks to Joe (Harry Belafonte) through the fence and then is let in. In the cafeteria Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) sings “That’s Love.” She asks Joe to take her out, but he says he already has a date. Cindy Lou says she is a “hot bundle.” Joe and Cindy Lou sing “You Talk Just Like My Ma,” and they kiss. He asks her to marry, and she agrees. In the factory Carmen is fighting another female employee, and Sergeant Brown (Brock Peters) orders Joe to take Carmen to jail. Carmen sings “You Go For Me,” and others sing “Carmen Jones Is Goin’ to Jail.” In the car Carmen sings to Joe “There’s a Café on the Corner” as he drives. She gets out of the jeep and climbs on the moving train. Joe follows her on and off the train. When he catches her, he ties her ankles and wrists and then carries her. Joe takes a bad road and gets stuck in a stream. She suggests he take her to her home town where they can catch the train. He unties her, and they walk.
At a market Carmen buys food for dinner. She says the train does not come until ten. At home her mother says trouble is coming to her because she found a buzzard feather. Joe says he does not drink. She likes him because he is not like the others. She gives him a peach and brushes mud off his pants. Joe is going to be a flyer and says he wants to go to school. Carmen says she will never marry and brushes his shoes. She fixes his belt, and they kiss. Later Joe gets dressed and finds a letter from Carmen.
Two weeks later Cindy Lou visits Joe in the stockade and cries. He tells her to go home to her ma. Joe gets a package, and Cindy Lou opens it and finds a red rose. During a work break Joe looks at the rose and sings “This Flower.”
Carmen goes to a café, hoping to see Joe. Frankie (Pearl Bailey) sings “Beat Out That Rhythm on a Drum.” Husky Miller (Joe Adams) arrives in an open car and sings “Stand Up and Fight.” He notices Carmen, and Rum Daniels (Roy Glenn) reprimands her for insulting the champ. Husky tells Rum to get her or find a new job. Rum invites Frankie, Myrt (Diahann Carroll), and Carmen to go with him, Dink Franklin (Nick Stewart) and Husky to Chicago. They sing “Whizzin’ Away Along the Track.” Carmen does not want to go and sings “There’s a Man I’m Crazy For.” She says she would like to see Chicago. Rum says Husky will give her diamonds. Carmen says she will wait for Joe, and Rum gives her a train ticket. They leave, and Carmen sees Joe. They kiss and dance. Joe says he has to report right back to the base to go to flying school. She asks him to go to Chicago, but he won’t go AWOL. Sgt. Brown laughs at Joe and warns him he won’t make flying school. Brown wants to dance with Carmen, and Joe fights him, knocking him out. Carmen and Joe hide the body in the bushes and take the train.
Husky is welcomed to Chicago by a crowd. Joe and Carmen stay in a hotel room, and she goes out to buy food. She goes to the gym to see Husky. Frankie welcomes her, and Carmen asks her for a loan. Frankie says Husky will give her diamonds, but Carmen says she is not for sale. Husky tells Rum and Dink to bring back Heat Wave.
Carmen comes back to Joe with groceries. He asks where she got the money, but she won’t account to him and makes a call. She gets ready to go out, and he is afraid of the MPs. He tells her not to go out and says she could never get away from him.
Husky is glad to see Carmen. Frankie and Carmen sing “Card Song.” Husky kisses Carmen. Cindy Lou walks on the street and sings “My Joe.” Joe goes out and avoids MPs. Cindy Lou goes in the gym to find Carmen and asks her where Joe is. Joe comes in and sees Carmen with Husky. Joe calls her a tramp and pulls out a knife. Husky hits Joe. Carmen helps Joe escape from the MPs. She tells Cindy Lou to go home. Cindy Lou goes out and sings “He Got His Self Another Woman.”
Husky enters the ring for his boxing match. Joe buys a ticket and finds a seat behind Carmen. After the first round Joe leaves his seat, and Husky wins by a knock-out in the second round. He kisses Carmen. Joe grabs Carmen and takes her into a store-room. She refuses to go with him, and he sings with her the “Final Duet.” He tells her to stay, or he will kill her. Joe chokes Carmen and sings “String Me High on a Tree.”
This musical is set in segregated South Carolina and Chicago and portrays African-Americans. Passion brings trouble for Joe and Carmen even though both have good intentions to be honest. The power resides with the successful boxer who is rewarded by society because of his entertainment value.